Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Palm Sunday image

Lessons:

Luke 19:28-40
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 22:14-23:56
Psalm 31:9-16

There are moments in our lives that are more than one thing at the same time. These are the moments that are full of big feelings, intense feelings – and they are the moments in which we are surprised to realise that two feelings that we maybe think of as opposites are coexisting in the same place. To my mind, the quintessential early-life example of this mixing is when you wipe out on your bike or fall out of a tree and you find yourself moving with this easy fluidity between crying hard and laughing hard. Even as your skinned knee sings with pain and maybe with the embarrassment of having taken a huge tumble in front of an audience, another part of you is laughing at the absurdity of your predicament, of having just done a real-life pratfall.

As life moves on, here is the last day of summer camp, an occasion when you are full of joy at new friends and new experiences and newly found independence (I just had five days in a row without Mom or Dad!) and full as well of this wistful sadness that it is all at an end. When I was un the theatre business, the end of every show hung out in this same strange and blurred territory, so that we celebrated what we had just accomplished (it’s a lot of work to put on a play) even as we mourned that it was over. (It was our own John Hammond introduced me to the idea of having an apprenticeship with grief. A lot of my own apprenticeship has happened on and around stages.)

How many other examples can we come up with? Here is the day you leave for college, full of anticipation as well as of sorrow at leaving your home. Here is the day that you are present for a birth or that you give birth, and right beside the wonder is an awareness of death. Here is the day of a marriage, the day when you retire, the day when you celebrate a milestone birthday, the day when you mark the anniversary of everything changing.

To call our feelings mixed in these moments is not strong enough language. The experience in these moments is something more like two planetary bodies, both of which have a huge gravitational pull, coming near one another and bending and sculpting one another.

Grief and jubilation together, shaped by one another.

In many ways, this Sunday is one of the strangest in the church year. This is not Palm Sunday. This is not Passion Sunday. This is Palm and Passion Sunday. And maybe that is a mistake by the architects of the church year. Are we cheering for Jesus, waving our palms in triumph, as he rides into Jerusalem? Or are we on a hill outside of the city, standing gutted with grief before the cross?

But maybe this isn’t a mistake at all. Maybe this contradiction names something real in our own lives, real in the lives of Jesus and his followers.

Jesus and his friends have made this journey to Jerusalem and Jesus has told them early and often how it is going to end, that it is going to end with him dying on the cross. And they have tried their very best to talk him out of it. Peter has taken him aside and said Jesus, you have to stop talking like that. You have to quit talking about dying. But Jesus would have none of it. Get behind me, Satan, he told his best friend.

And so what is the triumphal entry like for those who have been with Jesus through it all, those who have been with him since the beginning, who have heard Jesus’ persistent warnings? All around the disciples on the street is this joyful, subversive parade. It is a glimpse of the Kingdom, a scene in which a defeated and occupied people claim, at least for a moment, their dignity and their agency, a scene in which they declare that another world is possible, one in which they do not live underneath the boots of Roman soldiers. And at the very same time inside of the disciples, there is this anticipatory grief, this knowledge that if Jesus is right about what’s coming next – and Jesus has not been wrong about much – then at the end of the parade route there is a soldier waiting with a post and a beam and a hammer and a handful of nails.

Although maybe it is not just the disciples who feel this way. Maybe a bunch of the people waving palms and shouting in triumph feel the same way too. Because they know what the Romans are like. They know how brutal they are. And even as this celebration, this protest, continues, they are thinking to themselves:

There’s going to be hell to pay for this.

And maybe some of them, like Judas, have an even more ambiguous and troubled relationship with Jesus than that. Because it’s a safe bet that more than a few of the people who are on the streets cheering today will, in less than a week, be outside of Pilate’s headquarters shouting, Crucify him!

I think it’s Nadia Bolz-Weber who said that, in Jerusalem, it isn’t a long journey from Hail him! to Nail him!

This is the first Palm Sunday that I have celebrated since my fellow pilgrims and I went to the Holy Land last year. We were there for Palm Sunday. Do you know how you sometimes build something up in your mind, maybe a movie, maybe a trip, maybe a milestone day of your life like graduation or getting a driver’s license or the first day at a new job, you reckon that it’s going to be amazing or life changing, and then it’s a let down when the day happens? The day can’t actually live up to your imagination. Prior to going to the Holy Land, I reckoned that marching in the Palm Sunday procession would be amazing.

And you know what? It was even more amazing than I expected.

The experience was a sacrament, an outward and visible of faith, of my faith and the faith of so many others. Thousands of us marched into the holy city, following the path that Jesus walked. It was a celebration, a kind of carnival or parade. We sang these high-energy, celebratory hymns in Arabic. The head singer or cantor led us by singing into this squawky little speaker mounted on a stick. I didn’t understand the words, but I joined in when we called out the name, Hosanna! Hosanna!

Hosanna being a name of adoration, an ancient word that means something like Save us, we pray.

And at the same time, in the midst of the celebration, were the soldiers. Standing on walls and peering down on us, marching through our midst, their machine guns at the ready, their heavy body armour moving in the sun. We complain, sometimes, about our country. And maybe we have reason for doing so. But here in the States we enjoy a really vigorous expectation of freedom of expression. In that procession into the city, no sooner did a Palestinian flag appear than the soldiers were wading into the crowd to take it away, no sooner did a young man lose his temper and begin to yell at the soldiers than he was in handcuffs.

It is close to two thousand later. And still there are the soldiers and still there are the people singing Jesus’ name and marching for freedom. All of it together, on this day: joy and sorrow, jubilation and grief, triumph and loss, as we march into the holy city and towards the cross.

 

The Fourth Sunday in Lent by the Rev. Martin Elfert

March 31 copy.jpg

Lessons:

Joshua 5:9-12
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Psalm 32

The late film critic, Roger Ebert, had an observation in one his reviews that I have been thinking about a bunch this week. Ebert was reviewing a film that contained a bunch of parables. And he said:

…all good parables [are] expressed not in words but in emotions.

If Ebert is right, then the question for us this morning goes like this. As we listen to Jesus tell one of his most famous parables, maybe his most famous parable, the one that some Bibles entitle The Prodigal Son, how are we to feel? How are we to feel about God? About ourselves? About faith? About life?

One possible answer – maybe it’s the first one that comes to your mind, I don’t know – is that to encounter God is to be almost overwhelmed with joy and with gratitude. I’m going to venture that we have, all of us here this morning, made mistakes, done things that we regret, done things of which we are even ashamed. We have wished that we could go back in time and undo the words that we said or left unsaid; that we could go back and put the effort into maintaining a friendship that we damaged or simply let lapse; that we could go back and make a different choice on the day that changed everything in our lives. Failing that, failing a scenario in which we have access to a time machine, we wish that we could be forgiven. That we could be welcomed home once more.

All of us have been the younger son in this story, longing to be welcomed home, even as a servant.

And all of us – I hope, I trust – have indeed had the experience of being welcomed home, at least once. An experience in which we are staggered by the forgiveness of another person and of the forgiveness of God. In which we remember, as the old hymn has it, that great is the Lord’s faithfulness. That the Lord can and will forgive even someone like you or like me. And more than that, that the Lord will celebrate, that the Lord will throw a party when we come home.

Here is the other old hymn: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.

To hear Jesus’ story about God, about the Kingdom, is not just to feel joy and gratitude, but to be amazed by joy and gratitude.

That’s one possible answer to our question: How do we feel when Jesus tells us this parable? And it’s a really good answer. I want to be clear that I’m not doing that annoying rhetorical thing where someone shares an argument with you for no purpose other than to later tear it down.

And

Joy and amazed gratitude may not be the only emotions that this story might inspire in us. Much as we all have been the younger son, welcomed home with a celebration in spite of everything, we all have been the older son, watching our brother welcomed home.

Maybe what we feel hearing this parable is resentment and anger.

What is it like to be given a group assignment by a teacher only to discover that there is a classmate in your group who is checked out, who is simply not pulling their weight? And then, on the strength of your effort, to see that classmate get an A on the assignment? Or way more intense even than that, what is it like to be the one who steps up for an aging parent, taking them to appointments, advocating for them with doctors, maybe having them move in with you, while your other siblings are passive and distant, only to discover, on the day when the will is read, that your parent remembered everyone equally.

Sometimes, folks will cast the older brother as the one who just doesn’t get it, as this cautionary tale about, I don’t know, preferring the law over the love of God (quite a bit of anti-Semitism has flowed out of that reading). But actually, the older brother is behaving thoroughly reasonably, he’s behaving as I would probably behave in this same scenario. I think it’s Barbara Brown Taylor who poses the question, “Are you in favour of parties for prodigals?”

Here’s the younger brother, he’s leaned on his softy of a Dad until his Dad has caved and given him his inheritance early. And with that money, the younger brother has gone to the city and picked up a sports car and a drug habit. His life has been party after party, he’s spent his Dad’s money and more, maxing out every credit card that he can get his hands on. The older brother would’ve liked to go to the occasional party, he had his own wild oats that he wanted to sow. But he didn’t. He stayed home and did his duty.

The older son has heard that his kid brother has finally run out of money. And on his good days, his generous days, the older son can imagine his Dad letting his kid brother crash in the basement for a while. But making him work in return for his room and board. Because what his kid brother needs is tough love.

But that’s not what his Dad gives him. There is nothing even remotely tough about this love. It is naïve and generous beyond a fault.

The older brother hears the sound of the party and his hands shake with anger. And I can’t blame him. In this parable, Jesus has a major character who says, quite reasonably, that’s not fair. And how does the story reply? It says:

You’re right. It’s not fair. Unfair is what the Kingdom is like.

One more.

The late poet and theologian, John O’Donohue, has an absolutely amazing poem/prayer. It’s called For the Parents of One Who Has Committed a Crime. Although it could just as well be called For the Parents of a Prodigal. I thought about reading part of it to you. But I realised that there was no gracious place to stop or to cut. So I’d like to share with you the whole thing. It goes like this:

No one else can see beauty
In his darkened life now.
His image has closed
Like a shadow.

When people look at him,
He has become the mirror
Of the damage he has done.

But he is yours;
And you have different eyes
That hold his yesterdays
In pictures no one else remembers:

Waiting for him to be born,
Not knowing who he would be,
The moments of his childhood,
First steps, first words,
Smiles and cries,
And all the big thresholds
Of his journey since…

He is yours in a way
No words could ever tell;
And you can see through
The stranger this deed has made him
And still find the countenance of your son.

Despite all the disappointment and shame,
May you find in your belonging with him
A kind place, where your spirit will find rest.
May new words come alive between you
To build small bridges of understanding.

May that serenity lead you beyond guilt and blame
To find that bright field of the heart
Where he can come to feel your love

Until it heals whatever darkness drove him
And he can see what it is he has done
And seek forgiveness and bring healing;
May this dark door open a path
That brightens constantly with new promise.

God is the one who always sees beauty in darkened lives. God sees that beauty in your life and mine, even in our darkest moments. And God sees that beauty in everyone else, ever those who least deserve it. God is the one who sees the strangers that our deeds sometimes make us.

How should we feel when we hear this story? Full of joy and gratitude? Yes. Full of anger and resentment? Sometimes, yes. But if the saints are right, and it is your calling and mine to imitate Christ, then following the one who sees beauty in darkened lives means that you and I are called to do likewise, that we are called to welcome the hurting sinner home, to look out at the world, in spite of everything, with hearts full of love.

Third Sunday in Lent by Suzy Jeffreys

March 24, 2019

Lessons:

Exodus 3:1-15

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Luke 13:1-9

Psalm 63:1-8

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

When I told my husband that I was going to talk about darkness this morning, he said, “You’re not going to make it one of those interactive sermons where you ask everyone to close their eyes, are you?” He’s not a big fan of audience – or congregation – participation, if you couldn’t guess. If you’re like him, rest easy. I am not. But I am going to say something that as a young person going to church I would’ve loved to hear a preacher say – feel free to close your eyes during this sermon. As I was preparing for today, sitting on our couch at home in the evening, I found myself frequently looking out our front window at the darkening night sky as I considered how we talk about darkness, how we behave when we come upon it and what we might be missing when we behave that way.

In our western, technologically-developed, white-dominated society, when we say darkness, we often, almost always, are speaking of something negative. We talk about dark moods, being afraid of the dark, people who are the “black sheep” of their family. And like no one else in the history of our world, we push the literal darkness out of our lives. We yell to our kids to “come inside, it’s getting dark.” Even after we close our eyes, we leave nightlights on to show us the way, our electronics blink in the corner of our rooms, in my room the humidifier and the baby monitor both shine bright. If I got to the kitchen for a drink of water, the microwave and oven clocks provide all the illumination I need. That is the absolute totality with which we, in our society, have shunned darkness, because we believe about darkness being inherently scary or evil.

So if that’s a baseline for how we talk about darkness, it’s no wonder how we typically behave when we encounter it. We run, we turn our backs, we lock the doors, we pull the covers over our heads, we ask our parents to reassure us that everything will be ok. I don’t know if this is just me, but man can I literally let my own thoughts about darkness, not even the darkness itself, terrify me. I’ll be going to bed, slowly turning out lights as I head toward the bedroom where my husband is already asleep, and my feet will start to move quicker, my heart rate goes up, my gut just tells me to move through the darkness quickly and get to my bed, to my little reading light.

That’s why Moses’ encounter with the burning bush in this morning’s reading is so unusual to me. Now a story about a burning bush in what may have been the middle of the day may seem an odd reading to provoke a conversation about darkness…but I’m going to use the definition of darkness that Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor gives in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark. She writes, “darkness is shorthand for anything that scares me – that I want no part of – either because I am sure that I do not have the resources to survive it or because I do not want to find out.” And there’s no doubt that fire is one of those things that invokes fear, whether it’s opening the oven to flames to just smelling smoke somewhere it shouldn’t be to the absolutely devastating and terrifying impact on life and livelihood we saw in the California wildfires last year…and in the Gorge the summer before. Fire is a force that, rightly, makes us turn and run. It is a powerful darkness.

So we might expect Moses to behave the way we humans typically do when we encounter something terrifying…turn and run, possibly even leaving behind our flock that our father-in-law had entrusted to us. In the grips of fear, we take flight and put as much distance between us and the darkness as we can. But Moses didn’t do this.

First, we hear that “the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed,” which suggests that the fire maybe didn’t look like a typical brush fire. No, this blaze is described as being different, as not consuming the thing that it was burning. That gives us the sense that something strange, something unknown, something maybe to fear, was present. And yet Moses’s response is “I must turn aside and look at this.” While he would go on to have many more direct encounters with God, this was Moses’ first. It’s not like this was a common occurrence for him, God showing up in dazzling form. It’s not like Moses knew what to expect, or that he could assume from past experience of God’s presence that he ought to investigate. We get the sense from the reading that Moses was compelled and curious, and it’s at this point – when the Lord sees that he’s turned aside to approach the burning bush, that God then speaks to Moses, calls his name. And then Moses is afraid and he hides his face.

There is a lovely children’s book by the author Lemony Snicket called The Dark that I read to our kids about a young boy named Laszlo who we’re told at the start is afraid of the dark, the dark that lives in the same house as Laszlo, in the closet, behind the shower curtain, in the basement and, at night, across all the windows and doors of the house. Every morning Laszlo opens the basement door, stands at the top of steps and says “Hi” down the stairs to the dark, hoping that by visiting the dark in its room, the dark won’t come to his room. And then one night the dark says “Hi” back and tells Laszlo it wants to show him something. So Laszlo follows the dark around the house, finally down into the basement, where the dark shows him a chest of drawers full of lightbulbs. Laszlo says thank you, and, as Lemony Snicket writes, “The dark kept on living with Laszlo, but it never bothered him again.”

Who of us, if we heard something in the dark – the dark itself – asking us to follow it to show us something, would go along? Who of us, if while out walking alone saw a bush consumed by a strange blaze would get closer to investigate? And if we chose not to, who of us might miss the voice of God? Might miss hearing God call our name? Might miss being given a gift to help us understand and see our darkness. Might not see the “the way out” that Paul writes to the Corinthians about in his first letter to them that we heard from this morning.

There’s a lot in that passage we heard from 1 Corinthians. First, Paul is reminding the Corinthians of their heritage in the Israelites who were led into the wilderness by God through Moses, a journey that began with Moses encountering God in the burning bush. Second, Paul is reminding the Corinthians of the destruction and death that befell thousands of those Israelites, their ancestors, because of their turn toward evil. Why bring this all up? Why remind the Corinthians of these terrifying ends that many Israelites met at the very hand of God? Because, as he says in the final sentences of the reading from this morning, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” He is reminding the Corinthians that despite the centuries they have on the Israelites, they have not somehow succeeded in separating themselves from the darkness of temptation, whether through special knowledge or spiritual awakening or even proximity to Jesus Christ. They are still confronted by darkness too. And then Paul writes – in one of the most perplexing statements in his writing – and there are many – “God is faithful, and God will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing God will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it.” That verse has always sent my brain into spirals.

Paul says God will not test you beyond your strength. What would it look like to be tested beyond your strength? When my mom died in 2012 after seven months with brain cancer, I was not enduring. I felt tested way beyond my strength, and so I did two things – I drank a fair bit of wine and I slept a lot. All I could do for months was avoid the darkness of her death, and alcohol and sleep facilitated that avoidance.

I’ve often fixated in those verses on the idea of God “providing a way out” and asked what that looks like. But I think maybe it’s the “ability to endure” that is the way out. In the Greek the word translated as “ability to endure” has the connotation of “to carry on under,” which is to say to be burdened by, to feel the weight of the burden, the weight of the darkness, of the temptation. For me and the death of my mom, it was finally feeling the weight of the darkness – picturing my mom ill, recounting conversations we’d had in her final months, thinking about my own immortality – that was the way out. The way out was to go further in.

There is a risk here in romanticizing darkness. In terms of literal darkness, the places on our planet that are best lit are not the ones that are most populous only but the ones that are most populated by the wealthy. Many people on our planet do not have or have been denied access to electricity, and therefore to the ability to light the darkness, and in many places and many ways this contributes to poor health, to oppression by those with resources and power, and to individual harm. In addition, we risk ignoring that there are privileges in whiteness, in seeing and in mental health that allow some of us to simply to explore the dark areas of our lives and the world when it’s most convenient for us. I think we combat this by practicing darkness in the way we do the spiritual practice of prayer or meditation: by saying yes to exploring dark things when they become known to us, not just when we choose. By making attention to darkness an everyday part of our lives. By believing and amplifying the voices of those whose skin color, whose mental health, whose life circumstances, mean that they experience darkness regularly and without warning or without their choosing.

Lent means, literally, springtime. The sun is out, at least it was, the days are longer. But our rebirth in Lent must necessarily come out of the darkness of winter. There are wonderful opportunities in Lent still to explore both darkness and rebirth, to accept that God may inhabit the darkness in our lives and to go to God there. I wish I could say that when I went deeper into that darkness of losing a parent, I discovered a loving and kind God of comfort. I didn’t. I discovered that I believe fewer things about God than I once did, but that the ones I still believe I do so more deeply and fiercely than ever. Was that worth it? No. I would rather have my mom alive. But I can say that to the God I know now, the God I would not have met had I not gone into the darkness.

 

 

The First Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

March 10

Lessons:

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

 

 

What do we mean when we use the word temptation? More specifically, what does the Bible mean when it uses the word temptation?

In popular parlance, temptation frequently has to do with sex, with booze, or possibly with cheesecake. We often use the word temptation in the same way that we use words like decadent and sinful. While these words are officially negative modifiers we mean something more ambiguous when we use them. We use these words to talk about things that we love but that we feel kind of guilty about. Or, at a minimum, we use these words to describe our sense that there is someone out there, some school principal or straight-laced neighbour or humourless priest, who thinks that we ought to feel guilty.

We sand beside the dessert tray and we say:

O, these cookies are so decadent. They are sinfully good. I am tempted to have another.

And that’s fine. I am not troubled by using religious or moral language in a playful way.

I am a little more troubled when we start applying the language of temptation to sex. As I told you a few weeks back, Phoebe and I went to see Nadia Bolz-Weber speak at Trinity Cathedral. And it was important for me, as someone who has had overwhelmingly positive experiences in church, to witness just how many people have been profoundly wounded by screwed-up church teachings around sex. These teachings have left thousands if not millions of folks carrying around this bucket of shame and carrying as well as a thoroughly distorted picture of God. As Bolz-Weber puts it in the book that she was launching that evening at Trinity, our theology does not speak well of God if we imagine that God built this passive-aggressive test into human beings, so that God has given us sexual yearnings but God requires that they must be expressed absolutely nowhere other than in the context of heterosexual marriage.

Regardless of whether we use the language of temptation to mostly harmlessly talk about cookies (although I realise that there are folks who have shame around food) or to harmfully talk about sex, we are talking in a way that doesn’t have much to do with scripture. Yes, sexual temptation exists in the Bible – David murderous adultery is a cautionary tale about the combination of lust and power – but they are the exception to the rule. Notwithstanding the guilt-filled ideas that Augustine planted in our heads (I love Augustine, but when he was wrong he was really really wrong) the temptation that the snake in the garden tricks the first human beings into has nothing to do with sex. And the conversation that we hear today between Satan and Jesus has nothing to do with sex.

So.

Jesus has just been baptised. And depending on which Gospel you are reading, he is then driven or, here in Luke, he is led into the wilderness by the Spirit. He eats nothing for forty days. And while he keeps this epic fast, there is with him in the wilderness another presence. This is the same presence that came to Adam and Eve, that the monks and the nuns and so many others will later write about, the one that will come to them in the middle of the night or, sometimes, in the lull of the noonday, and tell them that there is something better someone else, at a different monastery, in a different life, with a different spouse, in a different job, or with a new sportscar.

Today, when we speak of the devil or Satan, we picture a horned creature with a tail and a pitchfork, maybe red all over. But this picture of Satan has more to do with Dante and the tripped-out paintings of Bosch and Bruegel than it has to do with the Bible. Scholars tell us that, in the Ancient Near East, in Jesus’ time, Satan is something like a title, a role, a job description. Satan means the Accuser or the Tempter.

Much as he came to Adam and Eve, this Tempter comes to Jesus. And he offers Jesus the same temptations that, come the 20th and 21st centuries, the preachers of the prosperity gospel will offer to you and me. The Tempter says: Follow me, do what I say, and I will reward you beyond your dreams.

The specific temptations are threefold. The Tempter says to Jesus: If you are the Son of God (somehow, it is the demons, the spiritual forces of wickedness who are able to recognise Jesus with an immediacy and an accuracy that his friends can’t match) then take this rock and make it into bread. But Jesus, drawing on the Book of Deuteronomy, as he will throughout this conversation, replies:

One does not live by bread alone.

Then the Tempter shows Jesus the whole world. Maybe we can imagine the two of them standing on a towering mountaintop, the famished and exhausted Jesus shivering and the Tempter, comfortable and resplendent in a three-piece suit or a Mark Zuckerberg-esque black hoodie. Perhaps the Tempter’s magic bends the light in such a way that the whole round world is visible at once. And the Tempter says: worship me and I will make you the supreme dictator of all of this. Again Jesus draws on Deuteronomy:

Worship the Lord your God and serve only God.

The Tempter takes a final crack at things. He takes Jesus to another pinnacle, this time the top of the temple in Jerusalem. And there from these vertiginous heights, the Tempter decides to give Jesus a taste of his own medicine. He has notices that Jesus has been fending him off by quoting the Bible, and so like the people who will later defend slavery and withholding the vote from women and refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple by citing Bible verses, the Tempter cracks open his Bible to the Psalm 91, and he reads: The Lord will command his angels to protect you, they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.

Come on Jesus, the Tempter says, Why don’t you jump?

One last time, Jesus turns to Deuteronomy:

It is said, Do not put the Lord your God to the test.

And then the Tempter is gone. Gone, that is, until the cross, until what Luke calls an opportune time.

Let’s return to our opening question. What is temptation? More specifically, what is temptation as the Bible presents it? With what does the Tempter successfully tempt the first humans, Adam and Eve, and with what does the Tempter unsuccessfully tempt Jesus?

Well, in answering that question I’m going to draw on the work of the wonderful writer and preacher and theologian, Ron Rolheiser – I’m going to be paraphrasing him heavily in the next few paragraphs. Rolheiser argues that how the Tempter tricks the first humans is to show them something that God has offered them as a gift and to convince them that they have the right to take it.

God puts the first human beings into the garden. The garden and the people alike are God’s work of art. And God says to the human beings I am giving you life and I am giving it to you abundantly. But you must always receive this life. You must never take it. As long as you receive my gift, it will be full of joy and love and freedom. But on the day that you begin to take, rather than to receive, your actions will begin to sow death, distrust, alienation, and shame.

Rolheiser makes the amazing claim that this single command from God – receive, do not take – encapsulates all of morality. That each of the ten commandments are a variation on this theme.

Now Rolheiser anticipates an objection here: Why, we well may ask, is there a condition on the human beings in the garden? Why didn’t God create a paradise without conditions, why didn’t God allow the first humans to take the tree of knowledge of good and evil, to take everything? It’s a fair question. But in answering it we need to be careful that we don’t understand God’s condition as something capricious or arbitrary, some trap in the garden, something that God might or might not have set.

That’s because God is love. And the condition that God has set is inherent to love.

Love is something that can only be received, never taken by force, never claimed as a right, never owned.

I think we know that from our own lives. When we say to another person, in a marriage or in a deep friendship, I love you, we are giving the other a gift, we are giving the other light and life. The gift becomes fractured, however, when one of the partner attempts to take the love, to insist on it, to keep it locked up. A marriage or a friendship in which one of the partners is required by law or by force to love the other isn’t a marriage at all – that’s a hostage situation.

In a similar vein, I want you to come to church, I want this place that we call Grace Memorial to be vital, I want it to grow in love and service and discipleship and, yes, in numbers. And because I want that, I do not want to participate in any strategy whereby I or anyone else coerces you into coming to church, whereby you are here out of guilt or shame or fear that God will punish you if you do not. I want us to receive one another’s love and God’s love as the Body of Christ. I don’t want us to be taken or to take.

And so the Tempter, having successfully pulled off this temptation with Adam and Eve, reckons if it worked once it’s going to work again. He goes to the famished Jesus and, just like before, he starts with food – this time it is not fruit but bread that he offers. Use your magic, he says, take that rock and make it into food. When that doesn’t work, he moves onto power. Take the fidelity of the people of the world, make them kneel before you. And when that doesn’t work, when Jesus resists that as well, the Tempter moves on to the biggest temptation of all.

Because what does Jesus want, what do any of us want, more than to know that we are loved?

The Tempter says Take the love of the one whom you call Father. If the Father really loves you like you say he does, he will save you. (This reasoning, by the way, that has since showed up in a thousand and one broken relationships, so that one partner decides that they are going to set one test after another for their partner until they end up fracturing the love that the two of them shared.) If God loves you so much, then jump. You won’t even hurt your foot.

How tempted is Jesus? Is there a moment when he moves closer to the edge, when his toes curl around the edge of the precipice, when he says to himself, With one step I could prove that God loves me once and for all, by just shifting my weight I could get rid of all of my doubt and all of my fear. I could know. I could make God love me.

But then Jesus remembers. Jesus remembers that this would be a violation of the ancient command, that he would be taking something that the Father is giving him for free. And so he looks the Tempter in the eye and summoning whatever strength is left in his exhausted body, he shouts:

It is written:

Do not put the Lord your God to the test.

And with that, the Tempter is gone.

Ash Wednesday 2019 by the Rev. Martin Elfert

A-22

Lessons:

Isaiah 58:1-12
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Psalm 103 or 103:8-14

There is a documentary from 2014 called A Will for the Woods. The film follows a man in early middle age, maybe more or less the age that I am now, by the name of Clark. Clark has lymphoma, he is undergoing chemotherapy and other treatment. And simultaneously, he is facing the escalating likelihood that the treatment isn’t going to work, that he isn’t going to get better, that the end of his life is approaching sooner than he ever imagined possible.

And so, even as his visits to the doctor continue, Clark and his wife Jane start thinking about his death and, still further, about what will happen after his death. And by that, I don’t mean that they ask theological questions – Clark and Jane are Christians, and so his hope, as we say in the funeral service, is that in death, life is changed, not ended – but rather they ask a much more earthy and basic and ancient question, What will we do with my body after I die?

What Clark decides pretty early on is that the standard-issue funeral ritual is not for him: he does not wish his body to be embalmed, to go into a metal casket, for that casket to be surrounded by concrete, for it to be placed underneath an impossibly perfect lawn. He wants none of the rituals that announce to the world I am not dust, and to dust I will not return. Nor does he want to expend the fossil fuels required by cremation. He wants his last action on earth to be as ecologically responsible as possible.

And so Clark and Jane start looking seriously into what is variously called Green Burial or Natural Burial. Their interest is deepened when they learn that a local cemetery owns several acres of undeveloped forest (the “woods” from the title of the film). This is forest that the cemetery is planning on cutting down and turning into the aforementioned perfect lawn with row upon row of headstone. But if enough people like Clark get interested in being buried in and among the trees as they are, then the cemetery is willing to leave the woods standing.

The film has a tragic and beautiful trajectory. Because Clark does not get his wish to get better. But he does get his wish to preserve the woods, for his resting place to be in the midst of nature, for his body to lay beneath the earth and beneath trees. Partway through the movie, he and Jane visit the place where he will be buried. It is a scene full of big feelings. For the two of them in then moment, assuredly. And also for us as we watch. To stand there among this beauty, to know that your body will soon become part of this beauty and will feed this beauty: well, it is wonderful and strange and, to use a Biblical word, fearsome all at once.

Eventually Clark dies. And Jane and their friends enact a ritual that, maybe, will seem bizarre or macabre or inappropriate to us in the developed world in 2019, but that would have seemed thoroughly normal to our ancestors. They bring Clark’s body home from the hospital where he died. They wash him. And then they lay Clark out on a pine box in the living room, and all of their friends come to visit and to sing songs and to pray.

At night, Jane sleeps on an air mattress on the floor beside her husband’s body.

And then after a few days, they seal the pine box and they take him to the forest, to the place that Clark and others have preserved through their choice to purchase a plot there, and Jane and all of the people who loved Clark lower his body into the ground, dropping greenery onto the lid of the casket before picking up shovels and taking turns covering it with earth – no backhoe involved.

Our sometime organist, Bill Crane, leant A Will for the Woods to me. It’s a movie that overlaps heavily with Bill’s own vocation. Because, in addition to being a musician, Bill is someone who has a long history of sitting with people in grief and or in trauma or who are approaching the end of their lives or all three. He is someone who, as the amazing expression has it, serves as a midwife to the dying.

Bill says that his experience is that folks who behave as Clark and Jane and their friends did, who behave as our ancestors did (remember that the place where we used to receive guests and where the body of a deceased loved one used to rest was called the parlour – and then it got rebranded as the living room, a name change that sure sounds like a renunciation of anything to do with death) find healing more quickly, they engage in the hard and necessary work of grieving better and more thoroughly than those who follow our society’s standard-issue script. The standard-issue script being: don’t talk about death, don’t plan for it, don’t write a will act, as though we could live forever if we just avoided eye contact with the grim reaper; and then, when death comes, have the professionals get the body out of sight as soon as possible, because – why? – because a human being’s mortal remains are offensive or dangerous, because they destabilise our story that death is something that happens to other people?

If Bill is right, then this day in the church and, indeed, the whole season of Lent that it introduces is both subversive and freeing. Because this is the day that we say that death is real and inevitable and, not just for other people but for us, and it is also the day that we say that forgiveness is real. That healing is real, reconciliation is real. That resurrection is real.

Somehow, these two themes: you are going to die and new life is yours are, well, they are indivisible. Maybe this is counterintuitive, maybe it is a mystery. But maybe it makes profound and ancient sense. Because to do as Clark and Jane did, to stand in the woods and say, This is where I came from and this is where I am going back to, to say, I come from dust – this dust – and to this dust I shall return (all metaphor is gone in this moment, this is real), well, it is to know that we come from somewhere beautiful and good and safe that we will go back there. To name our earthy origins and our earthy destiny – and maybe this is unexpected given the amount of time and effort that we put into denying finitude and death – sometimes leads us to an unexpected okayness with all of the loss and grief and endings of this life.

On this day we engage in the weird and ancient ritual whereby we draw the sign of Jesus on each other’s foreheads, in which we say to one another, Don’t forget that you are going to die. Together, let’s remember that we are here just for a while. Let’s remember that from the dust we are fearfully and wonderfully made by the very hand of God. Let’s remember that we will go down to the dust and feed the trees, our dust will go up into the sky and dance with the saints, our dust will be on earth as it is in heaven. When that happens we will participate in resurrection.

Last Sunday After the Epiphany by the Rev. Martin Elfert

March 3

Lessons:

Exodus 34:29-35

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]

Psalm 99

I’m going to tell you a story this morning that I am kind of nervous about sharing with you, that maybe I am embarrassed to share with you. I’m nervous or embarrassed or both because it’s a story about racism and about my participation in racism. And there are few subjects that white folks find more unwelcome than the subject of how racism might have anything to do with us. As consequence, there are few subjects that white folks are keener to avoid.

I’ve come to believe over the years, however, that the conversation that I am most nervous about having, that I most want to dodge, is often also the conversation that I am supposed to have, that I am called to have. With alarming frequency, it turns out that these conversations are where Jesus is hanging out.

So, here’s the story. It goes like this.

Several weeks ago, Grace hosted an event by the City of Portland, a forum in which communities of faith were invited to learn about leveraging their properties to create affordable housing, to respond to Jesus’ call to serve him by serving the poor, by being part of the solution to our city’s housing crisis. The event was high-energy and inspiring. In attendance were stakeholders from across the city, including reps from Carleton Hart, the architecture firm with whom Grace is working to create what are called conceptual plans for our campus.

After the formal presentation concluded, I headed over to the Carleton Hart table to have a little visit. I knew two of the people there, Brian Carleton himself and his colleague Ariel Chavarria, both of whom we have been working with over these last number of months. As I was talking with them, an African American man came up to me, he stuck out his hand, and he said:

Hi, I’m Bill Hart!

Now friends, here comes the part that I am embarrassed to share with you.

That’s because when Bill Hart said his name, I had an instant of confusion, of internal dissonance. My startle reflex very nearly kicked in when a person of colour introduced himself to me as a partner in an architectural firm.

Prior to that instant, if you’d said to me, “Tell me about the Hart of Carleton Hart,” I would’ve said, “I’ve never given any thought to that person.”

And yet. I somehow knew that Hart would be male (it turns out I was right about that part), that Hart would be tall, and that Hart would be white. Because, well, in our society tall and white and male is what partners in architectural firms look like.

All of this happened in a micro-second. I hope that none of it registered on my face or in my body language. If it did, I am profoundly sorry. I am so sorry to think that I contributed to the everyday indignity of being black in America.

The micro-second over, I shook Bill Hart’s hand and we had a good chat.

It is a cliché to speak of an experience haunting you, but that is kind of what this experience did for me. The memory of it walked up and down my like Jacob Marley dragging his chains. Here I am, a progressive guy living in a progressive city serving a progressive church – I’m woke, aren’t I? – and yet the expectations of racism have bent my very imagination so that, in it, black person and architect are categories that are pushed apart from one another, that cannot merge.

I decided that this was a story that I was supposed to tell, that I had a responsibility to tell, after attending a workshop by a man by the name of David Campt. Campt’s workshop, his labour of love, is called The White Ally Toolkit. And the catalyst for the workshop is simple and kind of appalling in equal measure. When surveyed, 55% of white Americans say that either racism is no longer a problem today or, alternatively, that racism against white people is just as bad as racism against people of colour. Campt’s goal is, by the year 2025, to reduce that number to 45%. He would like a simple majority of white Americans to agree that (a) racism exists and that (b) people of colour are its target.

The method of The White Ally Toolkit is to equip those of us who aspire to be allies (and let’s be clear, “ally” is not a category or title that those of us with status, power, or privilege get to assign to ourselves – it is people of colour who get to tell straight people that we are allies, it trans folk who get to tell cis people that we are allies, it is women who get to tell men that we are allies, the list goes on) for conversations with our uncles, cousins, friends, whoever when we sit down with those folks at the Thanksgiving Table and argue that racism isn’t such a big deal.

Campt’s method – and this is the super-condensed version of his workshop – is to start with empathy and agreement, to say, “I can understand why you would feel that way, things really have improved a lot in the past fifty years” and then to tell a story, ideally drawn from your own experience, that introduces some challenge. The method, in other word, recognises that, generally speaking, our hearts are opened not by arguments and statistics but, rather, by stories told by folks with whom we are in relationship.

The folks who attended The While Ally Toolkit were overwhelmingly white (I guess that’s what you would expect) and overwhelmingly lefties. Campt took an anonymous political survey of us early on, and it turned out that I was one of the most conservative people in the room, a thing that does not happen often. This was a room full of people, in other words, who were so far left that there was no left left. But that didn’t stop every one of us from having a story that was remarkably similar to the one that I shared with you at the start of our conversation this morning.

Campt broke us into small groups and invited us to risk telling these stories to one another. And so we heard about the woman who met a young black man on the street near her home and who became frightened and fought the urge to cross the street; about the guy who went to a concert and became seriously alarmed when he realised that the audience was more than 90% people of colour; about the woman who was generous in inviting friends of friends to stay in her home until one of those friends of friends turned out to be young and black and physically large and dreadlocked.

What I experienced at Campt’s workshop is good news. It is good news because it means that racism is not an individual character flaw, something hopelessly broken about a particular person. We live in a hyper-individualistic culture and we primarily talk about racism through the lens of me. And I suspect that is the reason that so many white folks are so defensive around the subject of race. We have this need – and we saw this in the news earlier this week – to frantically explain how we are not personally racist. Look at me, I have a black friend! Look at me, I have a black employee! I am exonerated!

That is absurd. Rather is a system. It is a system from which white folks benefit and by which white folks are diminished.

The other way in which this Campt’s work is good news is that it actually gives us tools to respond to racism. I don’t know about you, but every anti-racism training that I had done before Campt’s had sent me away feeling terrible about myself and with no new tools whatsoever. So I came out of these workshops saying, I guess this is my role as a white person in a racist society: I’m supposed to feel terrible about myself and change nothing about my behaviour.

Campt is totally uninterested in shame and blame and totally interested in equipping his students. And he argues that, because those of us who aspire to be allies are reluctant to tell these stories, because we let the nervousness and embarrassment that I talked about a few minutes ago scare us into silence, we inadvertently function as allies to those who want to deny that racism exists or not it is a problem. We inadvertently support and empower our friends or relatives or neighbours in being able say, I don’t know anyone who has racist thoughts, feelings, or actions. Through our silence, we facilitate the argument that racism doesn’t exist.

Moses goes up the mountain and when he comes back down, his face is shining from his encounter with God. And so his friends are afraid to look at him, he has to put on a veil before they can interact. Sometimes when something shines with the holiness of God, we cannot look because it is too beautiful. And sometimes we cannot look because that holy light shines on things that we would prefer to leave hidden.

Most white folks would prefer for the light of God to stay well away from the perverse and rigged system that we call racism. It hurts to look at it, and so our habit is not to look at all. But there is freedom in shining the light, freedom in looking, much as there is freedom in receiving a diagnosis or getting the news of a breakup of a layoff or a death. Naming the truth – well, as Jesus says, it will set us free. Shining God’s light onto the truth allows us to plan, to admit that we have an illness that needs treatment, to join Jesus in doing the work of justice and healing.

Because if I know anything about Jesus, it is that he is always to be found on the margins, always with those who are wronged, always with those who suffer. All of the stories that I shared with you this morning, all of them were about Jesus. Jesus is the young African American man on the street of whom we are afraid. Jesus is there in the audience at the concert with his brown friends waiting for the concert to start. Jesus is the houseguest knocking on the door with the brown skin and the dreadlocks. Jesus is the man sticking out his hand who, for a moment, I cannot believe could be an architect.

Let’s shine the light of God onto these stories, onto the shared sin that we call racism. Or no, that’s wrong, because God does not need our help or our permission to shine God’s light anywhere. Let’s notice that the light of God is shining into the margins, into the places where we would rather not look. And hard though it may be, let us trust that we will find our hope and our joy in joining Jesus there.

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany by Holly Puckett

Feb. 24, 2019

Lessons:

Genesis 45:3-11, 15

1 Corinthians 15:35-38,42-50

Luke 6:27-38

Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42

This sermon is about forgiveness. I am going to talk about a church shooting, and I am going to talk about abuse in the church. We have to face these realities, and in order to face them bravely, we have to talk and think about them. The readings today led me to these words. 

On the evening of June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, twenty-one at the time, joined a group of African Americans gathered for a bible study at the Emmanuel African ­Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. For over an hour, he participated in the discussion, and then he stood up, brandished a handgun and, yelling racist epithets, began to shoot people. At one point ­during the attack, he shouted, “Y’all want something to pray about; I’ll give you something to pray about.” When it was over, nine people were dead, including the forty-one-year-old pastor of the church, Clementa Pinckney; an eighty-seven-year-old parishioner Susie Jackson; and a twenty-six-year-old man, Tywanza Sanders, who tried to talk Roof out of it, and jumped in front of Susie to protect her. 

Later, under police interrogation, Roof flatly admitted to the killings. In a journal entry made some weeks after the murders, Roof stated, “I would like to make it crystal clear, I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”

Listen now to words of forgiveness from the daughter of a murdered churchgoer: she said to the killer, “I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you.” The relative of another victim said to the murderer, “We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.”

Hearing the response of the families, we can see the ­unfathomable love of God. We can spend our whole lives trying to understand forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation.

Forgiveness is how we decide to in our minds, and in our lives, let go of a hurt that someone else has given us. It’s when we find our own power, and don’t let another person tell us who we are, and define us. Maybe someone else put a heavy weight on your shoulders. And you don’t need it there. You don’t need to carry it.

Repentance is being aware of the harm that you have done to another person, and wishing that you had not done it, as well as taking steps to change what you do and how you act to make sure that you don’t do the bad thing again, and owning the consequences of your actions.

Reconciliation is the act of making true peace. Making things equal or right again when they were not compatible. Realizing harmony between issues, people, or groups that were against each other before. This can be a short process, or a long process, depending on the situation.

What is forgiveness, and why do we do it?

Forgiveness and reconciliation are different actions. Forgiveness is about what happens in our own hearts and minds. Repentance is what happens in the heart and mind of the transgressor toward the person they have wronged. And forgiveness can lead to reconciliation, just like repentance can lead to reconciliation, but it’s not just a given. Dylan Roof may never be sorry for killing those people in church that day. And sometimes the world is like that. And sometimes people don’t want to forgive. I don’t think that makes them less holy, or less loved by God for it. There is a person who harmed me, and I admit that I do not forgive that person. I’m not there yet. I’m not as good as God, or as loving as Jesus. 

In the Episcopal Church we say “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!” and “All are Welcome!” – some tough questions flow out of that, though. Are our enemies welcome? Who are our enemies? What are the boundaries of welcome? For me, the key is not being welcome to the detriment of safety. Are all people actually welcome if there is a predator among us? We can say yes – all are welcome – if we make it clear that in our community we value victims and we value safety. To be a participant in our community, the predator must do likewise – value safety and respect those around them – in order to be welcome here. The typical power dynamic between weak and strong has to be flipped for this to work.

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:43–46). In the Sermon on the Plain, he makes a very similar suggestion: “Do to others as you would have them do to you. For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6:31–32). And in dialogue with a Pharisee who had invited him to supper, he makes this teaching more concrete and pointed: “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you” (Luke 14:12–14).

In stressing love of enemies and generosity to those who cannot repay us, he is urging his followers to break free of the economy of exchange, which simply is our own egotism and it is a form of violence. “If I give you something, you have to give me something back. I deserve it. I demand it.”

Right now in the broader Christian church we are being rocked by scandals of abuse from priests and pastors. How a church responds tells us a great deal about who and what they value. Some, in my opinion, very unhealthy stories have emerged of regions choosing to cover up abuse, or not turning over criminal acts of abuse to be investigated by civil authorities, or saying that if an abuser has repented, then the survivor is now obligated to forgive.

 In our Episcopal Church, the response to this difficult issue of clergy sexual misconduct gives me hope that we are a group of people who is willing to flip that power dynamic on its head – we have said from the General Convention in July that anyone throughout time in our church who has experienced abuse is able to come forward and report, because the church, as a reaction to the many reports of abuse in other contexts suspends for three years the canon (church law)  that places a time limit on initiating proceedings in cases of clergy sexual misconduct. Leaders throughout the church  in the US will be working on other ways of addressing these issues, including a process to help the church engage in truth-telling, confession, and reconciliation regarding our history of gender-based discrimination, harassment and violence. This is the opposite of sweeping it under the rug. This is respecting the vulnerable people who have been hurt, and centering our community around their healing. This seems like difficult, sacred work.

Do you want to forgive someone, but you don’t know how?

Everett Worthington, was a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University when his mother was brutally murdered in a 1995 burglary. In a weird coincidence, Worthington’s research at the university examined the effects of forgiveness. So in the days after his mother’s death, he decided to employ a five-step process he had previously come up with:

First, you recall the incident, including all the hurt. Empathize with the person who wronged you. Then, you give them the altruistic gift of forgiveness, maybe by recalling how good it felt to be forgiven by someone you yourself have wronged. Next, commit yourself to forgive publicly by telling a friend or the person you’re forgiving. Finally, hold onto forgiveness. Even when feelings of anger surface, remind yourself that you’ve already forgiven.

Worthington found that his approach worked—and that other examples confirmed his intuition. Studies have shown that forgiveness aids mental and physical health, while the opposite reaction—holding a grudge and harboring resentment—has the opposite effect on well-being.

Grace feels like a sanctuary most days – a safe and welcoming place. I hope our church and our diocese will not have to directly face the awful topics that I brought up today, that plague the modern world. But if we do, the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers who left him for dead, and the teachings of Jesus will implore us to find a path to healing: seek to forgive when you are ready and able. Seek to repent when you have done something bad. God, forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us, and as an entire community, when we face a mass tragedy, or even a small wrong help us remember – we all fall short of the grace of God, and yet, that grace is still there for us, reconciling us to God and to one another. 

This is a terrifying thing to say – All Are Welcome – but I think, if we are going to be a church for all people in the heart of the city, we have to say it, and mean it, and work through the forgiveness, and repentance and reconciliation that makes our lives truly holy: The Episcopal Church Welcomes You. 

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Feb. 17, 2019

Lessons:

Jeremiah 17:5-10

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Luke 6:17-26

Psalm 1https://gracememorialdotorg.files.wordpress.com/2019/02/elfert-sermon-february-17-2019.mp3

 

When I sit in the pews or, in our online world, when I plug in my headphones and electronically join a congregation elsewhere, I don’t mind disagreeing with the preacher. I am not among those who see critiquing sermons as a form of impiety. To the contrary, I am fully on board with my philosopher friend, John, who says that when you disagree with him, that is a sign of respect and engagement. Some of the most important sermons that I have heard over the years were ones in which I listened and said to myself, Wow, the preacher has really gotten this wrong. I appreciated those sermons because they made me think, they obligated me to challenge and to clarify my own theology.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to a sermon that she’d heard preached at her parish. I listened to it online. And it was very much in the, Wow, this guy is getting things wrong category. I had a frequently furrowed brow as I listened.

But it took me a while to figure out what was bugging me so much.

The sermon was an effort to be prophetic. (Prophetic not in the popular sense of predicting the future, but in the Biblical sense of speaking truthfully and forcefully and faithfully to the ways in which the world has become distorted, in which it has strayed from the path to the Kingdom.) It spoke to three of the great moral issues of our day, that of climate change; of income and wealth inequality; and of the dehumanisation of immigrants, people of colour, GLBTQ folks, and so on.

And on its face, I didn’t disagree with the preacher’s thesis. Climate change really is an emergency that calls for immediate action: we will deny that or ignore that at our peril. Income and wealth inequality really is a major justice issue: I have no dispute with those who argue that an individual holding a billion dollars when there are children in this country regularly missing meals in an obscenity. The violence that we do to folks who aren’t white and male and straight is appalling: I went to a workshop earlier this week in which one of my fellow participants talked about how, as a black woman in America, she felt simply exhausted.

All of the preacher’s critiques, in other words, were real and urgent. What troubled me in the sermon was the language that the preacher reached for when he spoke of those whom he reckoned were responsible for these moral crises.

He referred to the folks as the Priests of Moloch.

Moloch, as you perhaps know, is an ancient Canaanite God associated with child sacrifice. Whether or not Moloch’s followers actually engaged in child sacrifice is an open question. Some scholars reckon the accusation that the Canaanites were feeding their children to their God was an ancient exercise in propaganda or character assassination, that it was a story made up by people who didn’t like them, including the folks who wrote the books of Leviticus and Jeremiah. Regardless, Moloch and his priests are, in our popular imagination, Capital “E” evil. In Paradise Lost and in lots of books, movies, and TV shows before and since, Moloch has stood in for worst and most selfish and most terrifyingly destructive side of humanity.

And this is the language that the preacher was using to describe his fellow human beings.

Do you know the concept of the scapegoat? Today, we have the expression “scapegoating” – that’s when something goes wrong and we identify an individual or a group of people to whom we can assign all the blame. When I was first out of theatre school, I worked for a couple of productions at a semi-professional company. And the show went off the rails – it was a disaster.

The director of the company made it pretty clear that the show’s problems were my fault. I was the reason that it had gone so wrong.

I was pretty devastated about this. I was an earnest young man, I wanted to do a good job. And I was gutted to think that I had broken things so badly.

Seeing how much I was hurting, an actor who had been with that company for a while took me aside and let me in on a secret: The shows at the company always went off the rails. And someone was always blamed for that happening. “There should be a plaque on the wall,” he said, “that commemorates who was blamed for each show going wrong.” For that particular production, I was the scapegoat.

We engage in scapegoating in our families. (You’re the reason that we never have fun on vacations! You’re the reason that Dad left! You ruin everything!) We engage in it in church. We engage in it our country.

Scapegoating gets its name because, way back when, a village would take a literal goat – maybe sometimes another animal – and they would ritually assign their sins to it. They would gather around and, with the help of the priest, and they would say: This thing I did or left undone? That belongs to this goat now.

That time you manipulated your spouse to get what you wanted? Give it to the goat.

That place where you hide the booze so nobody notices just how fast the bottle is emptying? Give it to the goat.

The shared reality that we live in a city in which people sleep on the streets, human beings whom we walk around on our way to get a latte? Give it to the goat.

And then the sins transferred to this poor animal, the people would drive it out into the wilderness or stone it. Our sins have become the goat’s problem, we’ve gotten rid of the goat, and so our sins are gone. We’re absolved.

The problem is that people have never been all that hot at limiting our scapegoating to goats. We scapegoat our fellow human beings early and often.

Rene Girard, the great historian, literary critic, and philosopher, writes extensively about scapegoating. And he argues that we see the scapegoating mechanism in the cross. When we gather in the crowd and we shout crucify him, we are blaming Jesus for everything that is going wrong in our lives as individuals and as a community.

And what Girard says is that, by going to his death utterly innocent, Jesus reveals how screwed up scapegoating is. As we stand at the foot of the cross, we see our own violence reflected back at us.

I realised, after some reflection, that this is what was bugging me about the sermon from my friend’s parish. When the preacher spoke of blaming the marginalised, even though he didn’t use the language, he was talking about scapegoating. The notion that immigrants are, somehow, responsible for our country’s problems is a classic scapegoat mechanism, it is absurd and offensive.

But then, having done so, he advocated for creating a new set of scapegoats. If we stop blaming our problems on immigrants or people of colour or gay folks or whoever and, instead, start blaming our problems on the 1% or conservatives or Donald Trump, if we make these folks into the Priests of Moloch, the very embodiment of evil, have we improved things? Or have we just moved the violence around? Are we still stuck in the same busted system that got us where we are?

As long as we keep participating in scapegoating, no matter who the scapegoat may be, no matter how much it may sound like they deserve it, we are the abused child who becomes an abuser themselves, we are the exploited people who become oppressors ourselves, we are simply transmitting the violence that we have received.

Jesus on the cross says stop it. He says: Look at me. Look at my broken, dying body. Look at what the violence of scapegoating does to another human being, look at what it does to God. He doesn’t say, You need a better scapegoat, someone who is really responsible for your problems. He says: You need to burn this entire rotten system of shame and blame  down.

Today, we hear the Sermon on the Plain, the shorter and less famous answer to the Sermon on the Mount. Depending on your understanding of the Bible, this is Luke taking the same oral tradition and telling it in a different way than Matthew or, alternatively, it is evidence that Jesus, like touring lecturers everywhere, reused his material, editing or altering it to meet the needs of a particular audience.

There is a danger, a temptation, to hear the Sermon the Plain and to understand it through the lens of the scapegoat. Unlike the Beatitudes in Matthew, where we hear eight blessings, in Luke there is a quartet of blesseds followed by a quartet of woes. And the temptation is to hear the blesseds as addressed to us and the woes as addressed to those other people, as evidence of what God is going to do to the wicked.

But notice a few things.

First, notice that 100% of the blesseds and 100% of the woes are addressed to the disciples. Luke’s Beatitudes begin:

Then he looked up at his disciples and said.

100% of what Jesus says next is about you. Jesus doesn’t say, Blessed are you who are poor but woe to those people who are rich. He says Blessed are you who are poor but woe to you who are rich.

All of this is about us, not about a scapegoat somewhere else.

Second – and this comes and goes so fast that it is easy to miss it – zoom in on the first blessed, and notice that it is in the present tense. Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. Is not will be. At least in part, Jesus is talking about reality in this very moment. This is not about putting up with the crushing weight of poverty in the hopes of being rewarded in heaven later – that would be the theology of the occupier or the slaveholder. Somehow this is about the Kingdom right here, right now.

And, confusing as that may be, I think part of us knows that Jesus gets this right. If you have lived any length of life, you have had the extraordinary experience of encountering loss or grief or unfairness and meeting God in that moment, of surprising yourself by saying, That experience was a blessing. And if you have lived any length of life, you have also had the experience of what we might call a real-time woe, a moment when you stray from your values and you realise that you have been diminished immediately by doing so.

And that is part and parcel of the last thing I would like us to notice, and that us that the woes are not something that God is doing. The woes just are. Jesus doesn’t say, Woe to you who are full now, for God will make you hungry. He says, Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

I mentioned a minute ago walking past the man lying on the street to get our lattes. Why do we tend to avert our eyes, to walk fast to get past that person. Are we afraid of them? Possibly. But what if we are also afraid of the woe that we encounter in that moment?

My late friend Douglas Williams – and I’ve shared this with you before, but it made a big impression on me and I’m going to share it again – said that the problem with being a murderer isn’t just that it makes someone dead. It’s that it makes you into a murderer. And in a similar vein – and let’s acknowledge, of course, that this is not a moral scenario as extreme as murder – what if part of the problem of walking past a homeless person while averting our eyes on our way to get a latte is that it makes is into the kind of people who walk past homeless people while averting our eyes on the way to getting a latte?

Listening to the sermon that my friend sent me, I realised that what I was longing for that preacher to say was this:

After he talked about the moral necessity, the Christian duty, of building a newer world for the sake of the least of these, for the sake of immigrants and LGBTQ folks and People of Colour, after we said amen to that, I wanted him to talk about the moral necessity, of the Christian duty, of building a newer world because the 1% need it, because the conservatives need it, because Donald Trump needs it. Because you and I need it.

No more scapegoats. As seductive as it is to get on Facebook or head out to the parking lot and assign our problems to those people, Jesus says no. Stop doing that. Working for justice means naming our own part in injustice. Building the Kingdom means naming the ways that we sabotage the Kingdom’s foundation. Let’s accept that the woes are part of our lives, part of our doing, part of our responsibility. Not instead of offering moral commentary or critique or prophecy, but as part of it. Let us have the courage to stand before and with Jesus and to name our woes. Having done so, we may find that we are freed to receive our blessings.